Study: HIV awareness surges in response to Charlie Sheen
Internet searches about HIV surged after well-known actor Charlie Sheen came forward and told the world he has the virus.
“The goal was to understand the kind of impact the Charlie Sheen disclosure had,” Seth Noar, co-author of the study and UNC journalism professor, said.
Using the Bloomberg Terminal, an advanced computer system for data-tracking, Noar and his colleagues were able to identify a large increase in the number of online searches related to HIV following Sheen’s announcement, he said.
“Like previous big announcements before it, these things garner major interest,” Noar said.
Ron Strauss, executive vice provost and public health professor, pointed out the importance of having conversations about HIV in a time of dwindling emphasis.
“So much around HIV is driven by silence and stigma,” Strauss said.
Strauss said it can be shocking to see someone with so much privilege announcing his positive diagnosis. Though HIV is sometimes seen as a problem for developing nations and not as a threat to the U.S., Strauss said the American South has the fastest-growing rate of HIV infection in the country.
“There are many people walking around infected who don’t even realize it,” he said.
Noar and his colleagues gathered information that could help increase the effectiveness of HIV awareness campaigns. This “Charlie Sheen effect” didn’t just include searches about Sheen but also included an overwhelming number of searches related to condoms, HIV testing and HIV treatment.
The obvious increase in HIV awareness displays the power of celebrities and their ability to get people talking about a somewhat taboo subject.
“If you can’t talk about it, it’s really hard to start changing things,” Strauss said.
Noar said he believes we may see an increase in the number of people getting tested for HIV in the months following Sheen’s disclosure. According to his study in Journal of the American Medical Association Internal Medicine, there may be cause for the media to harness Sheen’s celebrity to promote prevention.
“Mr. Sheen could use his celebrity to help people get tested for HIV, get treated and be more cognizant about safer sex. With the disclosure comes both opportunity and responsibility,” said Myron Cohen, a professor in the School of Medicine, in an email.
Strauss said this kind of celebrity announcement could be used to change the way people talk about HIV and to reach a greater number of people.
“Public health campaigns are a whole lot more than brochures and posters,” Strauss said.
Strauss said Mr. Sheen’s disclosure has the ability to increase HIV awareness in America.
“HIV thrives in silence,” Strauss said.